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A brief primer on punctuation options by Rick Taubold

Read the original article at Write Well, Write to Sell

on  at 9:14 PM

Posted In: Basics of writing, Punctuation

From Rick:

The punctuation book that Scott and I are working on has entered its final death throes (meaning pending final test reader acceptance and polishing in prep for the FINAL edit). Before I embark on the two promised series—one on book cover design and one on the practical aspects of self-publishing—I thought it would be nice to give our blog readers a teaser—and helpful information—from the last chapter of the punctuation book. This comes from the final chapter (16) on Special Topics. One of the topics in that chapter deals with how to decide which punctuation to use when several options exist.

You can always fall back on the standard periods and commas, but one theme running through our book is how to use punctuation to make your writing stand out for the reader by giving it clarity and proper emphasis.

In the previous fifteen chapters of the book, we guided our readers through the various punctuation marks and covered both basic and advanced topics. In the last chapter we endeavored to answer this final question: How do you choose when more than one punctuation option exists for a given situation?

The answer lies in the degree of emphasis desired and which part of the sentence you want to emphasize. Look carefully at your options, review the marks in question if necessary, and experiment. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of personal preference.

The colon, the em-dash, and parentheses can all be used to provide additional information, but each does so in a different way and for different reasons. The colon usually indicates that a list, description, definition, or explanation follows. It leads to reader forward into that information, which usually ends the sentence.

The em-dash and parentheses may interrupt the sentence anywhere to provide additional information, whereas the colon usually provides a smoother transition. The dash is a forceful interruption; parentheses offer a more polite one.

Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s the definition of a parenthetical from chapter 2 (Definition of grammar terms):

A parenthetical is an explanatory word, phrase, clause (often a comment or clarifying remark) that is put in parentheses or set off with commas or em-dashes.

He was (in my opinion) unqualified for the job.

He was, in my opinion, unqualified for the job.

He was—in my opinion—unqualified for the job.

The sports car—a metallic blue, foreign model—caught everyone’s attention when it sped past.

The fluorescence analysis equipment (to determine mineral composition) was down for maintenance.

Enclosing the information in parentheses treats it as if it were a helpful comment, an aside, or an afterthought. Putting commas around a parenthetical is the least intrusive means, but commas also provide a weaker separation, which may be preferable in some situations.

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Consider the following examples of the same two sentences modified with different punctuation. Some of them use parentheticals and minor wording changes. Although all say the same thing, the mood each conveys is different. Of course, these are not all of the possible variants.

David’s next step was clear. He had to find and stop Graeme before the next full moon changed his foe into a werewolf.

David’s next step was clear. He had to find and stop Graeme, before the next full moon changed his foe into a werewolf.

David’s next step was clear. He had to find and stop Graeme—before the next full moon changed his foe into a werewolf.

David’s next step was clear. He had to find and stop Graeme (hopefully before the next full moon changed his foe into a werewolf).

David’s next step was clear: find and stop Graeme before the next full moon changed his foe into a werewolf.

David’s next step was clear: find and stop Graeme—before the next full moon changed his foe into a werewolf.

David’s next step was clear: find and stop Graeme (if he was lucky) before the next full moon changed his foe into a werewolf.

David’s next step—find and stop Graeme before the next full moon changed his foe into a werewolf—was clear.

David’s next step was clear. He had to find—and stop—Graeme before the next full moon changed his foe into a werewolf.

David’s next step was clear. He had to find (and stop if possible) Graeme before the next full moon changed his foe into a werewolf.

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One characteristic of a parenthetical is that it can be removed from the sentence and the sentence will still make sense and be a complete sentence. Use this as your guide for placement of commas, dashes, and parentheses. With that in mind, let’s inspect some of the examples.

[CORRECT] David’s next step: find and stop Graeme before the next full moon. (Even though this isn’t a complete sentence, it’s a complete thought.)

[QUESTIONABLE] David’s next step—find and stop Graeme before the next full moon.

Our test, that you can delete the parenthetical material (after the dash in this case) and still have the sentence be complete, fails here. While we’ve seen the dash used this way, it’s the wrong mark because it’s an interrupting mark, not a continuation mark like the colon.

[INCORRECT] David’s next step—find and stop—Graeme before the next full moon.

This fails our test. If remove the material between the dashes, the resulting sentence “David’s next step Graeme before the next full moon” is a nonsensical one.

[CORRECT] David’s next step—to find and stop Graeme before the next full moon—depended more on luck than his determination.

Here’s another example.

[ORIGINAL] Our party consisted of two factions: those who knew some or all of what was going on—Kedda and Jake—and those who didn’t—Jen-Varth, Trax, Enelle, me. I wasn’t sure about Dayon.

[REVISED] Our party consisted of two factions: those who knew some or all of what was going on (Kedda and Jake), and those who didn’t (Jen-Varth, Trax, Enelle, and me). I wasn’t sure about Dayon.

While the dashes are correctly used in the original, having the hyphenated name “Jen-Varth” after a dash confuses the eye. The names in the two groups also were not sufficiently set off, and the second set of names ran into the following sentence where yet another character name is mentioned. Enclosing the groups of names in parentheses better separates them for the eye.

Consider this sentence:

If I didn’t give it a shot, I’d always wonder what if?

How should the “what if” be punctuated? The choice depends on what comes before it, whether the character is saying it to someone or we’re in the character’s head. If the latter, is it a direct thought or indirect thought? Where this comes in the story will also matter. We’d treat it differently if it closed a scene than if it came in the middle of a scene. Consider the following possibilities.

If I didn’t give it a shot, I’d always wonder, what if? [comma, slight emphasis]

If I didn’t give it a shot, I’d always wonder, “what if?” [comma plus quotes for more emphasis]

“If I don’t give it a shot, I’ll always wonder, ‘what if?'” [as dialogue]

If I didn’t give it a shot, I’d always wonder: what if? [colon for strong emphasis]

If I didn’t give it a shot, I’d always wonder, what if? [indirect thought plus a direct thought]

If I don’t give it a shot, I’ll always wonder, “what if?” [all direct thought]

If I didn’t give it a shot now, I’d always wonder: WHAT IF? [all direct thought plus caps for a stronger emphasis if this were a scene ending]

NOTE: A dash is probably not appropriate in here.

How do you ultimately choose from your options? We give you this advice:

Punctuation isn’t always about the rules but about the flow, rhythm, and tone. How the eye parses the sentence is also important. How are the sentences around it punctuated? Most of the time, sentences should blend into each other, not stick out. Use a consistent punctuation style throughout a given piece. Don’t use parentheses in one place if you haven’t used them anywhere else for parentheticals.

–Rick

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